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5 women accuse Provo of 'deliberate indifference' to sexual assault, harassment by former police chief

PROVO — A demand letter sent to Provo city officials says former police Chief John King sexually harassed or assaulted no fewer than five local women before his resignation in March, the result of “negligent hiring” and then “deliberate indifference” on the part of city leaders.

Provo officials not only hired King after he’d abruptly and mysteriously left two recent posts because of alleged sexual misconduct, attorneys allege, but allowed his behavior to continue in Provo, “unchecked and undisciplined,” until his resignation was forced by a public accusation of rape.

“Provo City hired a person to be the Chief of Police who never should have been hired,” reads the letter, signed by attorney Michael Young, who represents the five women. “That person hurt people. This claim is about Provo City doing right by the people they hurt.”

The letter, obtained by the Deseret News through a records request, was sent Monday and gives the city until March 19 to enter mediation or face litigation. The letter doesn't specify other demands.

Emails sent this week by Provo assistant city Attorney Gary Millward to Young said the allegations require a criminal investigation and sought permission to refer the claims to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

Much of the conduct described by the five women followed an alleged complaint to human resources that the letter says resulted in no discipline or reprimand, only what is described as a “heads-up” from then-Mayor John Curtis to King. That tepid response chilled future reports, the letter alleges.

Curtis, now a congressman representing Utah’s 3rd District, declined comment for this story. Calls to known phone numbers for King did not go through.

Among the newly revealed allegations: A dispatcher, then 28, said she resigned because she was sexually harassed by King, now 59, between April and June 2014, and she reported leering, uninvited touching and inappropriate comments to multiple city officials, resulting only in the “heads-up” from Curtis to King. Millward wrote to Young on Thursday that he had not been able to verify that human resources or Curtis had ever received a report about “inappropriate touching” by King.

Also detailed in the demand letter are allegations from a longtime dispatch supervisor who said she was harassed for much of 2014 and from another woman who said she was sexually assaulted by King in March 2015. A fifth woman, a police officer, said King groped her breasts underneath her flak vest on multiple occasions.

Much of that occurred before January 2017, when King was alleged to have raped a woman working with the department as a volunteer. King said the sex was consensual, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge King after an investigation by the Unified Police Department.

But it still brought about what was the third abrupt resignation for King, who was hired in November 2013 after former chief Rick Gregory left, citing family reasons.

In January 2010, King stepped down as police chief in Gaithersburg, Maryland, after a closed-door session of the City Council. The demand letter states that attorneys have “fairly easily” learned that King’s resignation resulted from allegations of sexual misconduct.

In June 2012, after just six months on the job as head of Baltimore’s education and training division, King was “escorted from his office” due to a misconduct complaint, according to the Baltimore Sun. Records obtained last year by The Salt Lake Tribune show that a secretary had accused King of sexual assault during a car ride, leading ultimately to a settlement agreement. Curtis has since said that Provo would not have hired King if he and other city officials had known about the Baltimore allegations.

Many of the misconduct allegations allegedly occurred at Provo’s dispatch center.

The dispatcher who said she filed a complaint said King began visiting the center more regularly than past police chiefs when he started in 2014, and he would stand uncomfortably close to the dispatchers, touch their shoulders, look down their shirts and stare at their breasts.

He referred to her breasts as “puppies” in front of five other dispatchers, she said, and after leering at her during an annual “Torch Run” to celebrate the Special Olympics in late-May 2014, he later asked her to show him photos of herself wearing her running clothes.

She left for a private-sector job in July 2014 despite having “thoroughly enjoyed her job as a dispatcher,” the demand letter states, because “she was anxious to leave given her experiences with Chief King.”

At that point, the demand letter says, the woman told a Provo police lieutenant about King’s behavior and her desire to file a complaint, and the woman was told by the King underling that she couldn’t do so based on her “icky feeling.” The woman allegedly told him it was more than just a feeling and later contacted a human resources staffer who, she alleges, told her that Curtis had given King a “heads-up.”

When King later saw her and her husband, a Provo police officer, at a local basketball game, King “sent a clear message … that Chief King was unmoved by the complaint and that he held (her) husband’s career in his hands,” the demand letter says.

Not long after, the aforementioned dispatch supervisor said King told her “it had been brought to his attention that he leers at the breasts of female subordinates.” He asked if she agreed as he rubbed her back and stared at her breasts, the demand letter says.

The dispatcher supervisor, a single mother, said she felt little choice but to comply when King would “demand” to meet her in a parking lot after her shift. King would sit in his car while she sat in hers, and he would make sexually suggestive comments, the letter alleges. Later, after pressuring her to have lunch with him and then inviting her to his car when the restaurant was unexpectedly closed, he rubbed her leg and asked to go for a ride, though she refused.

The demand letter says she confided to another employee that she felt she might lose her job by speaking up.

Another woman who isn’t a claimant is also said in the demand letter to have reported King’s leering to supervisors, but they told her to “ride it out” and that King’s actions were “how they behave on the East Coast.” And another nonclaimant referenced in the demand letter seconded descriptions of King’s behavior at the dispatch center, adding that when he entered the center, women would stand up and walk around or don a sweater to avoid being gazed at inappropriately.

Two women with no connection to the dispatch center also seek mediation over misconduct.

One had worked at the department for 27 years, under six chiefs, when King allegedly stared at her breasts throughout a 30-minute meeting on the budgeting process. In March 2015, she alleged, King groped her breast after she helped him operate the copy machine, pulling her close three times.

Later, when she was on leave for January 2016 neck and back surgeries, he allegedly called to say he “missed the scenery” and pressured her supervisors to induce an earlier-than-planned return to work. When he allegedly dogged her about joining her and a friend on a planned trip to Las Vegas, she began to hide in the bathroom when she heard him coming, she said.

The latest woman to join in the claim, with a notice sent Monday along with the demand letter, is a nine-year officer in community-oriented policing who said King assaulted her “four or five” times by hugging her from the side so he could grope her breasts under her bulletproof vest.

The allegations that cost King his job were brought by a Utah Valley University student who was researching the department’s Citizen Advisory Board for school and said she denied multiple romantic advances by King before he raped her on separate occasions. She reported the allegations to Curtis and the Utah County Attorney’s Office in early February.

After a period of administrative leave, Provo announced King’s resignation in mid-March with the explanation that his mother was ill and he needed to rejoin his family back East. Later, after a going-away reception was held in King’s honor, officials acknowledged that King had resigned at the request of Curtis, due to the allegations.

Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training dropped an investigation into King’s behavior after he agreed to voluntarily relinquish his state police certification.

Attorneys for the five women sent four notices of claim to Provo, beginning with the first in mid-January. Monday’s demand letter says Provo officials have responded with “troubling statements questioning the harm suffered by our clients.”

Millward wrote to Young this week that he needed more information about the relief sought by his clients and that it would be “unwise” to schedule mediation without more information.